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Case Number 01315

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Polyester / Desperate Living

Desperate Living
1977 // 91 Minutes // Rated X
1981 // 86 Minutes // Rated R
Released by New Line
Reviewed by Judge Kevin Lee (Retired) // August 16th, 2001

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of Very Crudely Yours: The John Waters Collection, published August 22nd, 2005, is also available.

The Charge

Smelling is believing.

Opening Statement

Long before Jerry Springer became the King of Trash TV, John Waters was the reigning King of Trash Cinema. Relying on sexual deviancy and utter depravity that serve as "satire," Waters' films revel in excess and he has attracted a cult following of loyal fans.

I am not one of those people.

Recent trends in Hollywood, thanks in no part to the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary), have seen the gross out comedy make a major resurgence. Some of these have been rather funny, while others have been sorry attempts at humor. The original gross out director is easily John Waters, who has managed to bring some of the most horrifying images to the screen. The difference between the Farrelly's and Waters, however, is that the Farrelly's (and others of their type) tend to include gross-out toilet humor in their stories, while Waters tends to include story in his gross-out humor. Many have labeled this "art." I don't buy into that in the least.

Facts of the Case

Desperate Living is one of Waters' earlier films, and, by all accounts during my research, would appear to be his most disgusting. After watching Desperate Living I wouldn't argue against that point with anyone. Desperate Living is the usual story of neurotic heroine Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole—no, I'm not making that name up) who alternates living at home and at an asylum. One day she thinks her husband is trying to kill her, so she attacks him and has her maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) sit on his head. Since Grizelda is roughly the mass of most automobiles, this turns out to be somewhat fatal for Mr. Gravel (George Stover). Peggy and Grizelda flee town where they encounter a lingerie-wearing motorcycle cop on the way to Mortville, a town of criminals and deviant refugees run by Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). The two of them rent out a room from Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), a butch lesbian who serves meals of raw, skinned roadkill. Mole wants nothing more than to appease her lover Muffy (Liz Renay) who really wants the touch of a man. Muffy later rejects Mole's sex change, and the new appendage is removed with tin shears and the assistance of a hungry dog. In extreme close-up. I really wish I was making that up, but I'm not. Peggy and Grizelda continue to meet more stupid people and there's really no other plot to speak of. And we get to see Grizelda naked. I really wish I was making that up, as well.

Polyester was Waters' bridge from X-rated fair into the mainstream, which was done out of necessity as small theaters showing X-rated movies were closing down. Polyester is still pretty far out of reach for mainstream audiences, but it includes far less of the depravity that some of Waters' other films have. This film was also released in Odorama, meaning patrons were given a scratch-n-sniff card as they entered and would use this as prompted during the film. I can only imagine the horror.

Polyester stars Waters-veteran Divine, an overweight transvestite, who portrays Francine Fishpaw, a "typical" housewife who's life is falling apart around her. Her husband Elmer (David Samson) is cheating on her with his secretary (Mink Stole), her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) wants an abortion, and her son Dexter (Ken King) is the infamous Baltimore Stomper, a serial foot-stomper-onner-person. With the quality of her life going down the drain, Francine turns to alcohol, but then finds hope in her new love Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter). Sadly, that pretty much sums up this turkey.

The Evidence

Waters aims for cheese and hits a bullseye with both films. The overacting by the entire cast would make William Shatner and David Hasselhoff all weepy-eyed, especially Mink Stole's continuous technique of screaming at the top of her lungs. The set decoration is garishly repugnant and is typically made of cardboard. As mentioned before, Waters has simply no shame in pursuing some of the most nauseating imagery ever captured on film. As Peggy Gravel and Grizelda flee the scene of the crime, we get to watch them run over a roadkilled dog. Nice close-up on that one. Apparently this is humor to Mr. Waters. Ha ha. I'm laughing far too hard at these comedic antics. Neither of these films aspire to anything more than this type of imagery and there is no real story in either film. Both films are excuses for Waters to exercise his deviant imagination. More power to him that he can and that he's found a fan base.

The video and audio quality on Desperate Measures is perfect in the sense that all of the artifacts, graininess and uneven sound are properly preserved for everyone to see. It does not appear that any attempt was made to clean up the master copy used for this transfer. Since this film has the quality of something seen on "America's Funniest Home Videos" (only not as funny) I don't believe any money should have been wasted on this process. The quality is somewhat better for Polyester which was helped for no other reason than it was actually filmed in 35mm. The transfer is not exactly something I'd want to show off a DVD player with.

The extras for this DVD are minimal. The theatrical trailers for both movies are included, and each includes a commentary from the smug, mumbling John Waters. This material really cracks him up. Waters is joined on the commentary track for Desperate Living by actress Liz Renay who, from what I could tell from her commentary, is a real wacko.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Okay, it's time to say something good about these movies.



The movies were very short, sparing me any permanent trauma.

The DVD makes a great coaster.

Closing Statement

I am not somebody who minds violent content or gore. I am not someone who will turn up my nose at toilet humor. I just want there to be some sort of purpose within a story for those to allow those elements. Fans of John Waters' films will probably enjoy this release. Other people could probably give them a rental unless they had something more important to do, like killing dust mites hiding under the carpeting or pulling weeds out of the neighbor's garden. I only regret that I don't have some witty repartee to entertain myself as I write this review, but I think I'm still in shock.

The Verdict

John Waters is not guilty of all charges by reason of insanity. This guy has problems.

Man, I need a beer.

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Scales of Justice, Desperate Living

Video: 60
Audio: 70
Extras: 70
Acting: 10
Story: 50
Judgment: 30

Perp Profile, Desperate Living

Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated X

Distinguishing Marks, Desperate Living

• Commentary by John Waters and Liz Renay
• Theatrical Trailer

Scales of Justice, Polyester

Video: 60
Audio: 70
Extras: 70
Acting: 10
Story: 50
Judgment: 30

Perp Profile, Polyester

Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English, Polyester)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks, Polyester

• Commentary by John Waters
• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb: Polyester
• IMDb: Desperate Living

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